A couple years after starting my role as the Native American Education coordinator for Brainerd Public Schools, I had a meeting with a student that stayed with me. It was a brief meeting with one of our middle school students. I was just checking in, introducing myself and letting her know a bit about our Native American Education Program. When we first sat down to talk, she had been looking down in her lap, kind of thumbing the pages in her planner. This can of course be typical behavior for any student, but in our Ojibwe communities, not looking a respected or elder person in the eyes can be a cultural practice of showing regard, sometimes misunderstood as being disrespectful in our more common “Please look at me when I’m talking to you” culture of respectful behavior.
When I introduced myself and my title, Native American Education coordinator, she lifted her head to look at me with excitement and optimism in her face. “I didn’t know we had stuff like that here!” she said. I was happy to see her engagement and I excitedly went on to explain our program which included staff like myself present and ready to support and advocate for her unique cultural and academic needs. I explained how we offer opportunities, like college tours that include visiting the American Indian Centers within the colleges. I told her about the cultural events we offer such as the community powwow we co-host with Central Lakes College. I explained the Winter Camp event that includes storytelling and Native constellation presentations. I told her how we were working on building inclusive curriculum resources in our schools so that our Indigenous students feel represented and connected to their classrooms. When I spoke about working toward a learning environment that reflected her culture at home, she articulated to me with such maturity how she compartmentalizes herself as an Indigenous student. How her family traditions, language and identity do not overlap with her time at school. She said, “When I walk into the school each day, I just check it at the door.” She didn’t feel as though the Indigenous part of who she is would be understood so she kept it like a secret at school and lived it as reality at home.
This wasn’t a concept that I had never been exposed to, but it sat with me. Perhaps it was the way her face lit up with optimism at the idea of feeling understood as an Indigenous person in her school environment or maybe it was the way she was able to articulate at such a young age how she has managed maintaining both her social and educational experiences as well as her cultural identity with great segregation. This short conversation with this student had an impact and it continues to remind me that with every poster in the hallway, book in the library, read aloud in the classroom or lesson in Indigenous history, representation matters.